China's new stealthy Unmanned Aerial vehicle (UAV), dubbed Sharp Sword by the domestic media, shows its eagerness to catch up in the field of drone technology.
It bears a striking similarity in its overall shape to the bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, built by the US company Lockheed Martin and operated by the Americans since around 2007. China is thus well-behind the Americans but is fast developing an impressive UAV capability of its own.
What is clear from recent air shows and the Chinese technical press is that China has developed a variety of UAVs matching virtually every category deployed by the US. They range from small tactical drones of limited endurance to much larger systems that look strikingly like US Reaper or Predator models, and just like their US counterparts some of these Chinese drones are equipped with hard-points on their wings to carry munitions.
The two leading players in the drone club - the US and Israel - have developed UAVs for a variety of purposes. These range from intelligence-gathering to strikes against targets on the ground. Not surprisingly, China sees UAVs in exactly the same light. UAVs are fast becoming an especially useful tool for Beijing in monitoring activity over contested areas of the South China and East China Seas. China is believed to have converted a number of out-of-date J-6 fighters into UAVs, which may well be being used to monitor the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
China also has the ability to arm some of its drones. Earlier this year, an interview in the Chinese Global Times newspaper provided a striking insight into Beijing's thinking about drones. A senior official in the public security ministry's anti-drugs bureau acknowledged that China had considered using an armed drone against a wanted drug trafficker in northern Burma, also known as Myanmar. In the event the attack was never carried out, but the clear implication is that Beijing has drawn some conclusions of its own from Washington's use of UAVs to take out targets across borders.